VOL. 132 | NO. 94 | Thursday, May 11, 2017
View From the Hill
View From the Hill: Gas Tax Rancor Lingers as Session Coasts to Close
By Sam Stockard
Remnants of rancor over Republican leadership roiled the House, a reminder of outrage over roguish behavior as representatives reached the finish line.
Alliteration is probably better suited for poetry. But in a case of what could be considered poetic justice, at least for some, this literary device – goofiness maybe – is suitable for legislative action requiring a score card to keep up with the characters and a bit of history to put it all together.
Discord on the House floor as members tried to wrap up work on Gov. Bill Haslam’s $37 billion budget plan reflected a little more than irritation over the gas tax/tax cut plan that rolled through the Legislature this session, much to the chagrin of the most conservative lawmakers in the Republican supermajority.
It could even be traced back to disgruntlement over the handling of Jeremy Durham by House leaders.
The disgraced Durham’s 2016 ejection for hitting on seemingly half the women at Legislative Plaza rankled a large number of House members, leading to a challenge of Speaker Beth Harwell by Rep. Jimmy Matlock.
Harwell beat Matlock 40-30 in a Republican Caucus vote last fall, a relatively close vote that foreshadowed further division in the first session of the 110th General Assembly.
Haslam obliged with his long-looming gas-tax proposal, which drew immediate opposition from conservative Republicans and a good dose of whining from the “Fire and Brimstone Caucus,” which felt it was being run over in the rush to approve a fuel-tax increase packaged with tax cuts while the state is sitting on $2 billion in extra money.
But while getting whipped soundly in the vote on Haslam’s IMPROVE Act, largely rewritten to make it more palatable with a larger dose of tax cuts, that ultra-conservative group of House members, including several who voted to keep Durham on board last year, refused to go quietly into the night.
Instead of leaving Nashville with a whimper, they forged a partnership of sorts with super-minority House Democrats, reinforcing the adage of 19th century journalist Charles Dudley Warner, who said, “Politics makes strange bedfellows.”
When folks such as Reps. Andy Holt and Jerry Sexton are siding with the General Assembly’s most liberal legislators, something weird is happening.
While nearly every Democrat voted in favor of the IMPROVE Act and its gas-tax increase, in contrast to the likes of Holt and Sexton, believe it or not, they shared common ground: the need for a bigger voice in the budget outcome.
Ultimately, this combination – dubbed the “Integrity Caucus” – simply wanted to be heard.
And they did it in a boisterous way, Democrats mostly by backing creation of an education trust fund and Republicans by poking the ruling class in the eye during the first day of budget talks on the House floor.
In one point of contention, Matlock, of Lenoir City, who was removed from the Transportation Committee chair post after challenging Harwell for the speaker job, redirected $3.12 million to the Honor Air Flight nonprofit organization from the Carter House in Franklin, a welcome center project in the district of House Majority Leader Glen Casada.
An opponent of the IMPROVE Act, Matlock explained how the organization flies veterans to Washington, D.C., for a tour and meeting with their congressmen and then brings them home to a hero’s welcome.
“They just give these men and women one more tribute for what they’ve done for our country,” Matlock said.
Yet amid a group that constantly talks up its love for veterans, he ran into opposition from former Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, a veteran, and Rep. Bill Dunn, who argued for the more conservative approach of private funding.
The unshrinkable Casada, meanwhile, contended the Carter House project would do more for Middle Tennessee than funding Honor Air Flight.
“It’s our job to spend money to grow the economy, create jobs and grow wealth,” he said.
In one of the lighter moments of the session, McCormick and Rep. Matthew Hill went after each other in an argument over an amendment by Hill to spend $12 million to help babies struggling with neo-natal abstinence syndrome.
“How do we go home and face these families?” Hill asked, contending the Legislature could take the money from the TennCare reserve to care for these babies, many of whom are born in his part of East Tennessee.
Irritated by Hill’s request, McCormick asked him if he bothered presenting the matter in the House committee, which is considered sacrosanct, unless someone in power wants to change things on the House floor.
“These poor babies, you just thought of it this morning,” McCormick asked, accusing Hill of trying to hold the budget hostage with these fragile children.
“Why didn’t you say something before today?” McCormick barked.
“Why didn’t you put it in the budget?” Hill retorted, taking offense at his tone while referring to McCormick’s position as chairman of the influential House Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee.
Some members of the press corps couldn’t help but chuckle at the irony of two Republicans jabbing at each other on the House floor. If not for humor, though, we might as well adjourn the General Assembly, which happened a few days later.
Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Sabi “Doc” Kumar said he just couldn’t believe the House would approve $200 million for the state’s TennCare reserve but refuse to approve his request earlier in the session to spend $2.5 million to help these types of babies, who will have “major cognitive problems.”
Absolutely shocking, since money already is in the budget for this statewide problem.
Verbal jabs apparently wore out the beleaguered Republicans, requiring an hour break that Thursday afternoon, after which the body came back together and approved – with hardly a word – a $300 million amendment by Rep. Judd Matheny to pay down debt for school system construction projects.
“I feel we’ve over-collected taxes, and we really haven’t done anything to give that money back to people,” said Matheny, a Tullahoma Republican.
It was as if they were saying, OK, we’ll let you have your fun but only to a point.
House Democratic Caucus Leader Craig Fitzhugh then pushed through an amendment, by a 40-39 vote, to create a $150 million fund within the TennCare and rainy day fund, now at $1 billion, an interest-generating fund to help school systems pay for items such as reading coaches, dual enrollment or computers.
“One of these days we’d have some real money in that thing we could rely on,” said Fitzhugh, moments after telling members he never made any kind of deal with the governor for Democrats to support the IMPROVE Act in return for passage of his education fund initiative.
Rep. Charles Sargent, chairman of the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee, which controls nearly everything running through the body, likewise swore he didn’t make a deal with Democrats.
“I’m going to look around the room and be very calm about this. I did not cut a deal with the Democrats. Look at the last vote and see who made a deal with the Democrats,” he said, referring to those who, on moderate issues, go against the flow.
But rather than try to kill every amendment tacked on to the budget plan, about $320 million worth, Sargent moved a dreaded “stripper amendment” to the end of the House agenda. [The stripper amendment would take off all of the additional appropriations to HB 511 approved Thursday].
A few minutes later, after a $24,000 food bank request failed, the House recessed until 9 a.m. Friday.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE
The next morning, Republicans had their plans set.
In a Republican Caucus meeting, Matheny told how he negotiated a deal with Senate leaders to shift a $55 million transportation budget amendment by the governor to county road work. An up-or-down vote would be taken on it, then a vote would be made on Sargent’s “stripper,” not to be confused with women from Nashville’s defunct Classic Cat.
A third move also was to be made by McCormick, according to discussion, and Matheny and his group demanded to be told just what it was.
When McCormick told them he was going to offer a plan to shift the $55 million to Fitzhugh’s proposed education fund, shocked whispers went through the Capitol room where they met, “They did make a deal with the Democrats.”
But wait a second, didn’t Matheny’s group meet with Democrats the previous day? After all, they’re the ones who voted to set up Fitzhugh’s education fund.
After a day of hollering, though, they all turned downright lovey-dovey. Even Democrats seemed somewhat satisfied after calling Casada a liar earlier in the week for saying all House floor amendments needed the blessing of caucus leaders.
The “stripper” turned out to be the same budget the governor presented, except for the shift in the highway funds.
McCormick never brought up the education fund, and just about everyone went home happy, except for those still irritated the Legislature broke the Copeland Cap, a mark set years ago by legislator David Copeland saying the state couldn’t have a higher revenue increase than household income.
In other words, the state can’t get richer than the average Tennessean, which it has in the last couple of years.
Technical stuff aside, the Harwellians prevailed again. But everyone, just about, got to make their case. Democrats made a few inroads, conservatives got their way on the transportation funds – finally – and they all kissed and made up.
Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.
Sam Stockard can be reached at email@example.com.